Freethought Today · Vol. 27 No. 7 September 2010

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Third place college essay

Religion: The blind navigator

Genuine public service seems to have become the pursuit of those who, in times past, could have found work selling snake oil. In a world where we now know of a multitude of ways in which we could destroy ourselves, navigation of this treacherous landscape requires the sort of even-keeled skill displayed by the old Mississippi riverboat pilots. Knowledge cannot be overvalued and must be expertly applied.

In this setting, the politician most needed is the rational one, the one who can objectively consider the facts and formulate reasonable and honest conclusions to best serve the public good. The tendency of many religious people is to discard facts that disagree with beliefs and distrust science. They already have the absolute Truth, and since nothing can change that Truth, further information is ignored. Truth with a capital T is trouble.

Imagine you’re a sailor on a long voyage. Several days after leaving port, you discover that the navigator is a blind old man. “I don’t need maps or stars,” he says, “I know how to get there.” Feeling a bit nervous, you tell him, “There’s land ahead, you know.” The old man replies, “No, there isn’t.”

The old man is a paragon of faith. He’s also going to sink the ship. Some people compartmentalize their irrational behavior well, but most do not. From creationists to climate-change deniers to those who relentlessly question the president’s birthplace, a large share of the American population operates outside the world of facts on seemingly clear-cut issues.

“In the marketplace,” Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “one convinces by gestures, but real reasons make the populace distrustful.” In other words, expertise is valued less than charisma. When science is regarded as pushing an agenda and data become “just another subjective argument,” how can we establish truth? Rather than arguing about courses of action in response to facts, modern debate often seems to center on what the facts are. In a Red Queen world where “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” such an intellectual ball-and-chain could be fatal.

It isn’t just the erosion of reason that’s damaging. Religion also deteriorates the political system through its divisiveness. Nothing draws lines or creates prejudices quite like religion. Most religions believe they have a monopoly on Truth, i.e., that all other religions are false. Since these religions are the same ones which believe in afterlife’s reward and punishment, the differences are chasmal.

Nothing draws lines or creates prejudices quite like religion.

Believers spend an eternity in bliss; unbelievers suffer an eternity of torment. The stakes, to put it mildly, are high. The resultant “us versus them” mentality has manifested itself countless times throughout recorded history as vitriolic bigotry and craven violence. Disagreement is inevitably visceral and intractable. As a result, completely unrelated issues commonly piggyback on these deep religious divisions.

Whether it’s nationalism, social policy or ethics, ideas often become associated with one religious group or another.

Is there any reason why Christians should be more likely to support “trickle-down” economic models? Is there any reason why they should be more likely to oppose regulation of industry? I don’t recall Jesus Christ discussing theories of supply and demand in the bible. I haven’t seen the Apostle Paul’s thoughts on free markets. Did Isaiah make some prophecies I missed about the immutability of Earth’s climate? Does the Monroe Doctrine appear in the Lutheran catechism?

Are there truly connections between these ideas, or is religion merely being used by politicians? Might they have realized that religion is the ultimate cat herder? Is that how they convince the poor that they’ll be better off if the rich pay less in taxes?

Perhaps they are again taking advice from Nietzsche, who wrote in Human, All Too Human, “To help a perception to achieve victory often means merely to unite it with stupidity so intimately that the weight of the latter also enforces the victory of the former.”

How can you intelligently discuss the application of governance to societal problems when it’s tangled up with paradise and perdition? The real question is whether it’s possible for a nation to even survive, much less prosper, through such a process.

The way forward

We desperately need the best solutions to quickly arise from debate and be skillfully applied in response to the increasingly dynamic challenges we face. Real leadership is rare but needs to be commonplace.

The real world doesn’t wait for the lethargic to catch up. History books are thick with the dust of failed civilizations. We are not special. We are not exempt. Real patriots are not afraid to criticize.

The only way to a hopeful future where we can learn and adapt as a nation is by casting off the heavy weight of religion. Flexibility makes a nation last. Rigidity is strong for a while but ultimately fails. The best way for a nation to be intelligently flexible is through a strong connection to science and pervasive rationality. Survivors have no use for dogma. Objectivity and a rigorous seeking of truth will best show the way forward.

Inequality saturates the globe. Epidemics of obesity and malnutrition exist simultaneously. One-sixth of the world is hugely wealthy while one-sixth is disgracefully poor. Racism and sexism lead to abuse.

Humans have too long pretended to be superior to other forms of life on this planet, and have thus driven uncounted species to extinction. We have damaged the planet severely enough to threaten our own survival.

Amidst this backdrop of unfairness and suffering, many people are focused on an afterlife to the detriment of reality. Leadership with a solemn respect for all life is long overdue. Those who are unwilling to exploit their fellow humans, to send the young or foolish to die in wars, have been scarce. Those who understand where hot heads lead tend to keep cool ones. Carl Sagan said, “Every one of us is precious in the cosmic perspective. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

I want leaders who listen to Carl Sagan, not to Pat Robertson or the pope or the ayatollah or L. Ron Hubbard or some ancient text or recent vision. I want leaders who could never bring themselves to use nuclear or biological weapons. I want leaders with an appreciation of life in all its forms, who see humans as part of the ecosystems in which they live. I want leaders who value answers provided by science ­— the rigorous pursuit of truth — over answers provided by 2,000-year-old writers or 200-year-old traditions. I want leaders who accept facts and ask, “How can we learn what the best course of action is?”

I want leaders who believe this life is all there is and want to work just as hard as they can to improve it for all people everywhere. I want leaders who serve real people rather than imaginary gods. I want leaders who serve.

Why keep god out of government? You might as well ask, “Why keep carpenters out of operating rooms?” or “Why keep land mines out of playgrounds?” These things have no place there, and it is simply irresponsible and dangerous to suffer them.

Nietzsche dreamed of “a Great Noontide when [humanity] will gaze both backward and forward, when it will emerge from the tyranny of accident and the priesthood, and for the first time pose the question of the Why and Wherefore of humanity as a whole.”

We certainly won’t get there with blind navigators.

Scott Johnson, 24, Madison, Wis., is pursuing an M.S. in hydrogeology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he received a B.S. with a geology major and an environmental studies minor. He plans to teach at the college level. He received a $500 scholarship from FFRF

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